“Michael Clayton” is a slow burn, with an ending that delivers quite a punch. It’s the type of film that many love but doesn’t fit neatly into the modern economics of Hollywood. Studios rarely make dramas like this for broad theatrical release anymore.
George Clooney plays Michael Clayton, a middle-aged lawyer who works for a large law firm as its fixer. He cleans up messes for clients who get into trouble – stuff like accidents, domestic issues, etc. He’s also having his own problems as he tries to dig out of debt from a restaurant venture gone bad due to his alcoholic brother.
Clayton gets pulled into a crisis when the firm’s top litigator Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), threatens to blow up the firm’s largest case by exposing how the client chemical company (fictional U-North) knew its product was killing people. Arthur is a brilliant but troubled lawyer with mental health issues, He strips naked during a deposition while declaring his love for the lead plaintiff, a young, pretty woman from a farm in the Midwest.
The cast in this legal thriller is excellent. Clooney delivers one of his best performances as Michael, playing it straight and leaving aside the playful attitude we see in so many of his popular performances. He’s right out of central casting as the middle aged, big firm lawyer who is doing his best to remain calm as he deals with Arthur and his own issues.
Wilkinson, on the other hand, is brilliant as the manic Arthur who feels liberated by his decision to finally come clean about his client’s misconduct after grinding on the class-action lawsuit for years. He gives us some of the most memorable scenes of the film.
Clooney and Wilkinson were recognized with Oscar nomination for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, but Tilda Swinton came away with an Oscar win as Best Actress for her performance as Karen Crowder, U-North’s awkward but ambitious general counsel. She’s desperate to succeed in her lofty position in the high-stakes, corporate world, which puts her in a difficult position as Arthur blows up the company’s case. Her problems escalate as she looks for ways to handle the mess.
The film perfectly captures the vibe of a prestigious New York law firm. It’s stuffy, cold and intense. There’s not much happiness there, which adds to the sense of gloom for Michael. Sydney Pollack, one of the producers of the film, is also excellent in the role of Marty Bach, the managing partner of the firm who must make sure Michael is handling Arthur’s mess while also navigating a possible sale of the firm. Michael O’Keefe easily handles the role of Barry Grissom, the kind of asshole you’d expect to find at one of these big firms.
The film was written and directed by Tony Gilroy, who received Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director in his directorial debut. Critics loved it. Along with the acting nominations noted above, the film also received nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Score. The film earned $93 million at the worldwide box office with a budget of $21.5 million, making it a commercial success as well.
“Michael Clayton” is one of those dramas that Hollywood used to consistently produce for adult audiences who cared about characters and plot. Much of that creative energy has shifted to television in recent years, but we can still enjoy a gem like this film.